Book Review: The Betrayed
by Reine Arcache Melvin
Bughaw/Ateneo de Manila University Press 2018
Lali and Pilar are the sisters whose father, Gregorio, had been jailed in Manila then hustled out of the city with his family to live in exile in San Francisco. The novel begins after Gregorio was gunned down by “the General’s men.” Now the prospect of ending their eight-year exile is possible, and Lali marries Arturo, a wealthy and powerful young man -- a member of the political opposition -- so she (and her mother and sister) can return to Manila where they can presumably resume their privileged life.
Lali gets her Mercedes Benz and her lavish parties. Pilar, the more cerebral of the two, works on documenting the life of Gregorio, who is considered a hero of the government opposition – the communists, the extreme-right faction of the military, the religious left. Pilar lives in their neglected family house along the river, an area which used to have Spanish colonial mansions but has been taken over by factories and warehouses.
Despite her high-living, Lali is very much aware of her dependence on Arturo for money and social status. Because she is the type of woman whose self-worth is tied in with how attractive (i.e. sexy) she is, Lali believes that her primary hold on Arturo is sex. She had all along taught herself how to turn on her sex appeal even with other women as a way of control. Raw sex, kinky sex, sex in any shape and form are important to Lali. Sex is a prism through which she sees the world. Her constant equations and calculations about how to “survive” always involve sex.
When Lali finds herself pregnant, she senses Arturo is distancing himself and she becomes fearful she will lose him to some other woman. Lali also notices that Arturo is attracted to her sister, Pilar. In desperation, Lali hatches a plan to allow Pilar to become Arturo’s lover. “Arturo’s going to need somebody,” Lali tells Pilar. “And I rather it be someone I trust. You have until the baby is born.”
What follows are complications that bring Lali on a journey to Southern Philippines with an American journalist. The journalist wants to cover news of vigilante and military killings. Lali’s quest is to find out what happened to an ex-lover, Miguel, who disappeared into the sea years ago. The political upheavals and violence both in the South and in Manila, serve as a backdrop for Arturo’s political ambitions as he runs for office.
Reine Arcache Melvin, who has lived in Paris for years, has created a fine Filipino novel. The work is exquisitely written; the language is elegant and unpretentious. The form of her work is straightforward – we start from the beginning and continue to the end. She uses alternating points of view, which allow the readers to get into the minds of the sisters and Arturo. Melvin’s scenes and images are dark and edgy, which enhance suspense. She takes us to old and new Manila, and to the provinces of the South, with ease and clarity. She peppers her work with fascinating Philippine myths, folklore, and superstitions. Her fine depiction of Philippine society reveals the wide dichotomy between the rich and poor. Her historical references though fictionalized ring true.
Melvin’s greatest strength is her creation of strong and authentic main characters, Lali in particular. Let me clarify -- these are not heroic characters. They have no love for country; they do not have high ideals. They are concerned with their needs (sexual, physical); they want to maintain the wealth and power that had been established by their great-great-grandparents. They are generally selfish although they do feel tenderness to others. Arturo, for instance, is distraught when the servant woman who had taken care of him is hospitalized. Lali, in a spontaneous act, takes in an orphaned boy to raise in her household. Melvin’s characters feel, move and react to what is going on around them; and they are fleshed out. They are complex, but they simply are not noble people. By the end of the novel, they do not display genuine love for their tormented country or for their fellow Filipinos who carry the burden of generations of injustice. Melvin’s characters continue with their lavish lifestyle, with “the story they could live with.” They neglect the larger story surrounding them, the story of greed and corruption and unrest that persists in real-life Philippines.
Let me end this review by stating that Reine Arcache Melvin’s novel The Betrayed is one of the best Filipino novels I have read in a long time. The book will be enjoyed by those interested in literary books, historical fiction, and books on women, among others.
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